Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 3, Part 5 - Traditional Kenyan Food and a Visit to a Farm

This is the fourth diary on G-BIACK (Grow Biointensive Agriculture Center of Kenya), an award-winning NGO based in Thika. The first three diaries describe the Grow Biointensive method of agriculture, G-BIACK's women's programs, G-BIACK's crops and livestock at its demonstration and research site.

During my first day at G-BIACK, my host Samuel took me to a hotel in town for lunch. I scanned the menu and said I wanted something traditional. Samuel seemed surprised but - I think - pleased. I ended up eating a dish called irio along with some kale, which is known here as sukumawiki. Irio is like green mashed potatoes without cream or butter, and with large kernals of corn in it. The green color comes from greens like Russian comfrey that are mixed into the potatoes along with peas or beans. Samuel ordered fish and irio.

Irio and sukumawiki

Irio and fish

Samuel promised we'd be having a traditional goat meat dish for dinner, along with vegetables and ugali, the Kenyan staple that is described as a stiff porridge but does not resemble porridge to me. Kenyans seem to eat with spoons instead of forks from what I can observe, but when eating ugali, you use your fingers. You grab a bite of ugali and then use it to scoop up whatever you are eating with it (like goat stew).

Other popular vegetables here are cabbage, spinach, pumpkin, black nightshade, amaranth, taro (known here as arrowroot), sweet potatoes, and potatoes. Popular legumes include beans, lablab beans, black eyed peas (cowpeas), peanuts (ground nuts), and peas. Corn (maize) is the staple grain here, but rice is very popular, wheat is used to make chapatis I believe (an Indian tortilla-like food sometimes eaten instead of ugali), and sorghum is grown as well. I'm surprised I haven't seen more millet growing in areas lacking in water, since millet is more drought tolerant than corn.

One Kenyan food that must be mentioned is tea. Kenyans LOVE their tea, which they drink with lots of milk and sugar. Tea is served every afternoon, and tea is taken with breakfast every morning. Kenya is known for the black tea grown here, and that is the variety everyone drinks. I'm sure it has everything to do with Kenya's history as a British colony. My Kenyan friends are shocked that I don't see tea as a daily necessity. I prefer my tea black ("strong tea" as Kenyans call it), and they are convinced that that is probably disgusting. Even weirder, some days I don't want tea at all. My Kenyan friends cannot figure out what is wrong with me.

Tea and white bread. Kenyans LOVE white bread, which is much preferred over whole wheat bread.

Coffee originated in Kenya's neighbor to the north, Ethiopia, and Kenya grows some spectacular coffee. Some of the areas around Thika grow coffee. And yet, Kenyans don't really drink it much at all.

For meat, beef is popular here, even more so than goat I think. Butcher shops always have entire sides of beef hanging in the window. But goats, cows, chickens, and even pigs are kept for meat here. Unfortunately, Kenya is also home to an active bushmeat trade, so if you are not careful, you might end up eating giraffe or zebra without knowing it.

After lunch, we went to visit one of the communities that G-BIACK works with, the Thika River community. They have only just begun working with G-BIACK, so they still have crops in the ground that were planted using chemicals. A very sweet woman named Dorcas is G-BIACK's field staffperson for this community. As we arrived, they were building a seed bank.

The soon-to-be seed bank

Seed bank from another angle

Ear of corn grown with not enough chemical fertilizer, resulting in a poor crop

Amaranth, cultivated for its leaves

Dorcas, showing where she'd helped the community prepare a few beds and plant some onions

Maize, as they call it here. This is typically intercropped with beans and sometimes pumpkins.


A shed

Pumpkin growing among the corn

Banana tree growing within the corn field. You can intercrop bananas with just about anything so long as you put enough space between the banana trees.


The chickens. Samuel says that nearly every family has at least one chicken even if they have no other livestock.

Olive, the owner of this home, looking on as the men work on the seed bank. Olive suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.

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